Posts Tagged 'memorandum'

Austerity pinch, SYRIZA breakup threaten Tsipras’s teflon suit

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

Teflon Tsipras. Despite the near-collapse of the domestic economy and a spectacular U-turn on austerity pledges, Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras’s popularity remains unchallenged.

By Harry van Versendaal

Less than a week after Greek lawmakers voted through the country’s third massive international bailout, Antonis Bertsos, a 69-year-old retired businessman who lives in Athens, has no regrets about supporting SYRIZA in January’s general election. He says he would happily do so again even though the party had to abandon its policy pledges.

“Tsipras is alone among Greek politicians to have truly negotiated with the nation’s creditors,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

Bertsos, who used to work for a German multinational firm, has seen his pension drop by 43 percent since 2010 due to a series of cuts demanded by Greece’s creditors. A former supporter of the socialist PASOK party, he later migrated to the more business-friendly conservative New Democracy: the two parties that dominated the country’s post-dictatorship politics. Now, Bertsos justifies his newfound preference by pointing to SYRIZA’s moral advantage and its youthful leader’s unblemished political record.

“He has never put his hand in the cookie jar,” Bertsos said of the 41-year-old Alexis Tsipras, a former member of the Communist party youth movement who became Greece’s youngest party leader at the age of 33.

During Tsipras’s tumultuous tenure as premier, the country has fallen back into recession, sunk deeper into debt, and introduced stringent capital controls as banks shut down for three weeks. On top of that, after the country’s economy all but shut down, Tsipras, elected on a pledge to end austerity, signed up for a 86-billion-euro cash-for-reforms rescue agreement a mere week after Greeks massively backed his plea to reject a less brutal deal in a controversial, nationwide referendum.

But this devastating record does not seem to have put a dent in SYRIZA’s popularity.

A poll by Metron Analysis conducted late last month found that 63 percent of voters deemed that reaching an agreement with lenders was the right move. The survey put voter preference for SYRIZA at 33.6 percent, leaving main opposition New Democracy in the dust on 17.8 percent, or trailing 15.8 percent.

Fresh opinion polls are expected after the summer lull.

The government’s scattergun technique and dismal record, analysts say, has not prevented SYRIZA spinmeisters from building a strong narrative of defiance and victimhood.

“While in opposition, SYRIZA succeeded in tweaking public perception of the bailout agreement. Far from an imperfect, even problematic, remedy to a problem, the memorandum came to be seen as the very source of the Greek crisis,” political expert Elias Dinas told the newspaper.

In the process, SYRIZA casually slipped into nationalist language at odds with its previously progressive rhetoric to attack its conjured enemies. They were, by and large, mainly to be found at home, and were made up of all Greek administrations between 2009 and 2015.

SYRIZA stuck to a similar strategy after climbing to power and winning the January 2015 election. But the strain from trying to keep promising its outrageously untenable campaign pledges, a manifesto known as the “Thessaloniki program,” meant that SYRIZA had to scramble to find a new target. They did not have to look far.

“The villain was now the Germans, [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schaeuble, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, the vaguely defined conservative circles and elite groups inside the European Union,” Dinas said.

“The ideological content of these targets is secondary to the nationalist dimension: They are portrayed as enemies of the Greek people and this generates emotional responses that, of course, favor the government,” he said.

Poor competition

Another reason that Tsipras and his ministers were able to dominate the political scene despite some of the biggest flip-flops in recent memory was the stark absence of a convincing alternative.

“There is simply no viable opposition party that could gain votes from SYRIZA,” said Spyros Kosmidis, an expert on elections and public opinion.

“This leaves a lot of wiggle room for mistakes and delays,” he said.

Following former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s ignominious exit, New Democracy seems pretty much locked in existential mode. The conservatives recently voted Vangelis Meimarakis as their new leader. He is a no-nonsense party stalwart who is popular across the political spectrum but whose presence at the helm reflects the lack of alternatives for the main opposition party. Its most recognizable faces are also those that took part in the ND-PASOK coalition that suffered a landslide defeat in January. It will take time until ND manages to present itself as a real competitor to SYRIZA.

In the Socialist camp, the party’s spectacular decline was sealed by the election of the underwhelming Fofi Gennimata as its new leader. Her sharp jibes at Tsipras have fallen on deaf ears, and the extinction of the most dominant force in Greek politics has left a vacuum at the center.

Seeking to fill this vacuum, the pro-European, pro-business Potami party, which was launched last year, represents the most serious bid to energize reformist voters, yet it does not have what it takes to occupy the middle ground.

And for a large chunk of voters who abandoned longstanding ties with other parties, it doesn’t even matter whether someone else would actually be better for the country – it would be hard to accept that the change they believed in could turn out to be false.

“These voters will be rationalizing their choice for quite some time,” Kosmidis said.

Nascent impact

Although SYRIZA’s ratings have escaped relatively unscathed, Tsipras’s teflon suit could start to wear uncomfortably thin as voters begin to feel the pinch of the mounting austerity measures.

Studies estimate that the total burden on the average household from changes to VAT rates will reach 650 euros on an annual basis.

After trying to shirk responsibility for the six-month economic decline, SYRIZA is likely to try the same on the impact of the third memorandum.

“Attributing blame to creditors or the previous governments can be a successful strategy, but it has a short expiry date,” Kosmidis said, adding that the fallout, especially on employment, will inevitably hit the government’s popularity.

“When that happens, the ‘bad Europeans’ narrative will no longer work,” he said.

But then again, maybe we won’t see a sharp drop in the popularity of SYRIZA and Tsipras. PASOK, after all, went on to win the 2010 local elections six months after the first bailout agreement.

“SYRIZA’s decline will be gradual and linear to economic outcomes. The opposition’s support for the third bailout agreement will help them maintain some support,” Kosmidis said.

Yawning divide

Experts deem that the most likely factor to accelerate popularity loss is the nascent split within SYRIZA – officially known as the Coalition of the Radical Left.

Tsipras has on three separate occasions relied on votes from ND, PASOK and Potami to pass legislation mandated by creditors as SYRIZA MPs rebeled. The process has exposed the party’s pre-existing division between a majority of pragmatic MPs and a vociferous minority of dissidents spearheaded by former energy minister and head of the mutinous Left Platform Panayiotis Lafazanis. A day before Greek lawmakers endorsed the bailout deal, Lafazanis announced that he would help set up a new, anti-bailout movement.

The fracture has made elections unavoidable, but it is still unclear whether Tsipras will hold a vote of confidence to trigger a snap vote, as some of his close aides have advised him, or choose to first pass the bulk of legislation implementing reforms Athens has committed to by the end of September.

New dichotomy

In any case, SYRIZA will most likely seek to transform the pro- vs anti-bailout cleavage that has animated Greek politics into a pro-euro versus pro-drachma one.

“It is ironic that the party which built its popularity on this dichotomy will now try to abandon it, but nothing is written in stone when it comes to electoral politics,” Dinas said.

Although it should not be ruled out, a collaboration between SYRIZA and center-left parties, including Potami, is unlikely.
It is also not necessary, experts say, as SYRIZA still has room to play the critical pro-bailout force without deviating into center-left territory.

“SYRIZA’s populist discourse has a nationalist component that enables the party to draw support from the non-leftist section of society without having to approach the median voter in ideological terms,” Dinas said.

“This is thanks to a populist tradition that goes a long way back, but one that SYRIZA has served very well since the beginning of the crisis,” he said, indicating the decision to join forces with the populist nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL).

Shrugging off the repercussions of the fresh barrage of cost-cutting measures, Bertsos suggested that the source of most woes is, in fact, far from home.

“Sure, Tsipras has made mistakes, but the pressure on him from outside was unprecedented. They [foreign creditors] really wanted to rip him to shreds,” Bertsos said, adding that Athens paid the price of antagonism between Brussels and Washington.

“When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled,” he said.


Samaras: too small for his boots?

By Harry van Versendaal

“A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds,” R.W. Emerson said, but — as Antonis Samaras has found out — too much inconsistency can be politically damaging.

In 2009, the 61-year-old conservative politician took over a broken New Democracy party promising to rebuild it around the idea of “social liberalism.” It was an exclusive concept that moved the party further to the right on Greece’s political spectrum by embracing such values as national pride, Orthodoxy and skepticism of the markets. Awkwardly echoing Bismarck, the Greek politician claimed he could hear the distant hoofbeats of history.

A few months later, ND came out against the bailout deal that George Papandreou’s Socialist government signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Samaras went on to oust Dora Bakoyannis, the centrist former foreign minister who had earlier challenged him in the party leadership race, for backing the aid package in Parliament. Bakoyannis, in turn, formed her own pro-bailout splinter party, taking some of her ND colleagues with her. Strangely, Samaras had done the same in the early 1990s, as he left ND to form his own party, Political Spring, bringing down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyannis’s father, in the process.

As a result of his tactics, Samaras drove away the party’s middle-ground supporters who had been key in handing his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis, victory in two parliamentary elections.

His opposition to the memorandum was short-lived. Faced with bankruptcy, Greece earlier this year had to sign a second bailout deal worth 130 billion euros to keep the country afloat until 2014. In his most controversial U-turn, Samaras asked his MPs to support the aid package. The decision prompted a great deal of controversy in the right-wing anti-bailout camp inside and outside the party as epithets ranged from “flip-flopper” to “traitor.” Some 20 deputies refused to back the deal in the House and were as a result expelled from the party. One of the rebels, Panos Kammenos, went on to form the populist anti-bailout party Independent Greeks, sucking a great deal of support from ND on the right. After turning his back on the political center, Samaras had now disaffected a large portion of the right.

ND’s role in the power-sharing government that followed Papandreou’s clumsy exit from the driver’s seat only gave voice to Samaras’s critics. Although pledging to support the implementation of the bailout deal, he undermined it at every step of the way while constantly bleating for a snap election.

On May 6, Samaras finally got what he wished for. But, in yet another instance of political miscalculation, the outcome of the ballot was a far cry from what he had hoped for. His party came first in the vote, but the result was a Pyrrhic victory as Samaras had spent a good part of the campaign calling for a clear conservative majority. The numbers were painful. Samaras had inherited the worst support in the history of ND — Karamanlis’s 33.5 percent in 2009 — and managed to drive it even lower, scoring an embarrassing 18.8 percent. The party lost more than a million voters in less than three years, during which it was not even in government.

Like a pupil resitting exams again and again, the poor marks have prompted Samaras to rebrand his politics. Now he wants to build a “grand center-right front.” The results of his overture have been mixed. Most of the smaller liberal parties, including the pro-reform Drasi, turned down the offer. Ironically, it was his bitter political rival Bakoyannis that was this week duly welcomed back into the fold as the two announced they were joining forces in a “patriotic, pro-European front.” And as his acceptance of defectors from the disintegrating nationalist LAOS party into ND demonstrate, there is hardly any ideological or quality filter to Samaras’s attempts to broaden his party’s appeal.

As conservative ideologues would be the first to admit, the political horse-trading of the past few days smacks of unscrupulous opportunism. As it happens, cliches have their place. A true leader must be proactive, he must shape events and not just be blown about in different directions by them. But if the ability to inspire a unifying national vision is a safe measure of a politician’s greatness, then Samaras has proved to be a political pygmy.

ND may well recover by June 17. But Samaras will only have SYRIZA to thank as the leftist party’s fuzzy economics and pie-in-the-sky rhetoric is making many people afraid that Alexis Tsipras’s vision of a bailout-free utopia will lead the country out of the eurozone.

Unlike his new archrival, however, the ND boss lacks an ideal — and that may prove to be his undoing. Samaras may have changed his political tune one too many times for Greek voters to give him the mandate he so desires.

Moderate, pragmatic and unloved: Greece’s liberal parties

By Harry van Versendaal

“In Greece, a liberal is called a ‘neoliberal’ and is perceived as a ‘neoconservative’,” says Constantinos Alexacos, an architect who ran as a candidate with the Drasi party in the May 6 elections.

Big shocks change perceptions but the spectacular meltdown of Greece’s two-party system, dominant since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has failed to shake off at least one: mainstream distrust in liberalism.

Socialist PASOK and the New Democracy conservatives suffered a drubbing on Sunday, seeing their combined share of the vote sink to an all-time low of 32 percent. Nevertheless, none of the country’s liberal parties — Democratic Alliance, Drasi (which merged with Liberal Alliance ahead of the vote), or Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) — won enough votes to make it into Parliament. The three garnered a combined 6.5 percent, or 411,536 votes, as a huge chunk of support went to the anti-bailout parties away from the center of the political spectrum.

The poor showing has prompted a fair deal of frustration and soul-searching among self-described liberals in this debt-wracked nation. If there is one thing they all agree on it’s that their doctrine is a perennial victim of bad publicity. For a wide range of reasons, liberalism is still a dirty word for many, particularly those on the left.

“Like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We’ve allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned with,” says Emmanuel Schizas, editor of the LOL Greece blog.

“Essentially, if you call yourself a liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, a corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the suppression of political rights,” adds Schizas.

It’s quite an exasperating situation for people who have traditionally espoused such values as individual freedom, rule of law, active but accountable government, free but responsible markets, and mutual toleration.

Most liberals have called for a smaller government, fewer civil servants, privatizations and further deregulation of closed professions. But the fact that liberal parties chose to back the deeply unpopular austerity policies attached to the EU-IMF bailout deal didn’t do much to promote their ideas. Worse, some liberal commentators say, the parties paid the price of endorsing ideas that were not, in fact, related to their political religion.

“Most liberals around the world have strongly opposed policies like those included in the memorandum,” says Tilemachos Chormovitis, a contributor for the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog. “You can’t solve a debt crisis by accepting more loans. Instead of putting forward their own program against the tax-heavy policies of the memorandum and the stubborn statism of the left, liberals tagged along with the worn-out parties that backed the program,” he says.

To be sure, allergy to liberal ideas goes further back and has systematically been fed by the system of nepotism, clientelism and corruption that took hold of Greek society after populist PASOK rose to power in 1981. Any attempts to contain the country’s gigantic and profligate state ran against the interests of the ruling parties and their voters. Over time, liberal reforms were seen as coming together with a self-destruct button.

“There comes a point on the road to serfdom where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalizing it will simply kill it,” says Schizas with a mention of F.A. Hayek’s 1944 classic.

Implementing liberal economic reforms, he says, was bound to take a hefty toll on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people — at least in the medium term. “In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don’t bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down,” he says.

It’s hard to miss the uncomfortable truth at the core of the liberal creed: “The liberal parties are in the business of pointing out trade-offs; telling people they can’t have everything. That’s been a widely unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the ‘change’ of 1981,” says Schizas, referring to the late Andreas Papandreou’s famous campaign slogan which heralded the massive, but often misguided, program of wealth redistribution which was to follow.

The trade-off idea is a far cry from the populist, pie-in-the-sky idealism that has animated Greek parties seeking to appease an audience that had grown increasingly spoiled during the past 30 years. Furthermore, this cold, instrumental approach to politics, observers say, is out of synch with the all-too-human qualities of politicking. “Politics is not engineering. It’s chaotic, it does not follow a straight line. Just like life,” Kathimerini commentator Nikos Xydakis says, acknowledging SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’s deft timing and political opportunism. “Politics requires Machiavellian ‘virtue,’ the ability to adapt to any given situation by doing whatever is necessary,” he says.

Wrong leaders, wrong audience

Analysts also voice reservations over whether Drasi leader, veteran politician and ex-minister Stefanos Manos and former New Democracy heavyweight Dora Bakoyannis, who now heads Democratic Alliance, are the right people for the job.

The biggest handicap, journalist and urban activist Dimitris Rigopoulos suggests, is that the vast majority of voters see them as part of the problem, not the solution. “Manos and Bakoyannis are both associated in the collective consciousness with Greece’s discredited political establishment,” he says.

Parallel to this, experts say, there’s an issue with the audiences that these parties have chosen for themselves. Drasi, which likes to see itself as the ‘orthodox’ libertarian party, tanked outside the main urban centers while drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from the alumni of elite schools. One of the most common criticisms against liberals is that they are haughty and elitist.

“You get the impression that many of these people feel unfortunate to have been born in Greece and often treat their compatriots with disdain. Naturally, they have failed to identify with the masses and the biggest chunk of support comes from posh districts like Filothei or Kolonaki,” Chormovitis says.

Meanwhile, most of the support for Democratic Alliance appears to come from the reservoir of voters connected to Dora Bakoyannis’s family — which includes her father and ex-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis and her late politician husband Pavlos. “If we’re being charitable, it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have personal loyalties,” says Schizas.

Still far from tipping point, but…

Some observers are rather reserved about the future of Greece’s liberal movement. “Greeks — at least those who did not vote for the leftovers of the old system and those who didn’t abstain — voted for sterile reaction and conservatism,” says journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos.

The ballot, he says, shows that Greece’s creative minority — those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow — is still far from reaching what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point” – “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” bringing about disproportionate change in society.

“If Greece’s creative minority had really reached the tipping point, the country wouldn’t have gone bankrupt in the first place,” Georgakopoulos says.

But true to their creed, liberals remain optimistic about the future. For Rigopoulos, a journalist with Kathimerini and founding member of the Atenistas citizens’ group, Greece is for the first time witnessing the conditions for the emergence of a genuinely liberal, reformist movement.

“Until five years ago, the so-called liberal front was reduced to a mostly isolated, demonized faction inside New Democracy plus a few scattered voices inside PASOK — the legacy of Costas Simitis, as it were,” he says in reference to the former modernist-minded premier. As intense polarization fades, new forces are being unleashed — “for better or for worse,” he says.

But unless they decide to join forces, liberals will find it hard to reach the tipping point. Ironically, although they are proud of their pragmatism and consensual habits, Greek liberals were in these elections represented with three distinct groupings. While bigger parties are struggling to form a unity government, liberal party officials have over the past few days been in talks to cooperate ahead of possible new elections. “Working with other people and parties has always been part of the solution as far as Drasi is concerned,” says Alexacos.

Others are less sure about the prospect. Chormovitis, for one, questions whether a liberal coalition would in fact succeed in even amassing the combined 6.5 percent won by the three parties on May 6.

“I am not so sure that Bakoyiannis’s election base in Crete or Evrytania would vote for a liberal coalition party that would not feature herself as leader, or that the fans of Manos and Tzimeros would throw their weight behind one of the most worn-out politicians of the post-1974 period,” says Chormovitis in reference to Thanos Tzimeros, the young advertiser who led Dimiourgia Xana, the surprise package among smaller parties.

Schizas insists parties should call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform first. “The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves,” he says.

But whether they choose to cooperate or not, Schizas says, Greece’s liberals must above all reach a point where they are defined not by association, but by their actual program. “As long as we are the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatization people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey.”

A dose of the right medicine for New Democracy

By Harry van Versendaal

Some three months since ousting a veteran MP for suggesting that “extremist right-wing droplets” had infiltrated the party, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras last week welcomed two far-right politicians into the fold.

Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis were both expelled from the ultranationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), the junior partner in Greece’s coalition government, for supporting the terms of Greece’s loan deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The perennially ambivalent LAOS rejected the deal and withdrew its support from the government. Meanwhile, Samaras, who had vehemently opposed the first loan deal in 2010, ousted 22 deputies for turning down the second aid package.

Analysts have interpreted the recruitment of the two politicians as an attempt to offset the damage of losing the 22 MPs and, on a more strategic level, as a bid to rally a party base disaffected by ND’s involvement in the coalition government.

“Damaged from his involvement in the coalition, Samaras wants to siphon votes from crumbling LAOS,” historian and political blogger Vasilis Liritsis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Going mainstream came with a hefty price for the party of Giorgos Karatzaferis, who saw its popularity tumble to 5 percent, from 8 percent during its heyday in 2010. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party has surged to 3 percent, hitting the threshold for entering Parliament.

“For ND, having the two far-right politicians on board is part of a bigger strategy to eat into rightist territory,” Liritsis said.

However, some observers point out, this is not an indiscriminate overture to the far right. The conservatives are only trying to woo politicians who backed the bailout deal.

“ND needs to show its electorate that the memorandum was not only supported by PASOK and other reformists but also by a section of the nationalist far right,” said Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens.

“This is what brought Voridis and Georgiadis to ND,” she said.

Gray zone

Voridis and Georgiadis, who were both given portfolios in the coalition government led by former central banker Lucas Papademos, have repeatedly drifted into democracy’s gray zone by expressing nationalist and anti-immigration views.

Georgiadis, who resigned as deputy minister for development, competitiveness and merchant marine, has made a name for himself as a flamboyant telemarketer and publisher of pseudo-scientific patriotic literature. He has in the past called for the en-masse deportation of Albanian immigrants and, as a lawyer, he has defended historian and Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Voridis, who has kept his position as minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, was leader of the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group founded in the early 1980s by Greece’s jailed dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. A few years later, he was banned from the student union at the Athens Law School for engaging in extremist acts. A picture of Voridis taken around that time shows him walking down a central Athens street with a homemade ax. In the mid-1990s, he founded the nationalist Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), modeled after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. Hellenic Front was absorbed by LAOS in 2005.

“Can you imagine any of them in charge of a ministry dealing with immigrants?” Liritsis said. “These are dangerous people.”

Voridis has gradually gone mainstream, adopting a crafted, airbrushed image. His public language habitually taps into popular concerns about crime, illegal immigration and law-breaking acts of leftist activists. His tough positions tread the limits of political correctness but usually not enough to alienate a mainstream audience.

“I was a political activist of the right,” said Voridis last week while labeling the conservatives as a “big patriotic liberal party.”

“ND’s ideology is tied to two central concepts that belong to the value system of the right: the nation and freedom,” he said.


ND has historically had an ambivalent relationship with the far right. Faced with the prospect of election defeat in 1981, the party absorbed the royalist National Alignment (Ethniki Parataxi), although that was not enough to stop Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK from sweeping to power. In 2000, conservative leader Costas Karamanlis ejected Karatzaferis, who went on to form his splinter LAOS party. He still scored a comfortable victory four years later.

“When things are going well for ND, it likes to keep a distance from the far right. However, when they’re not and the party needs to galvanize support, it tries to embody the far right into its core,” said Georgiadou.

This is certainly one of those times. The tectonic plates of Greek politics are shifting as failure to grapple with the deepening financial crisis has sparked an unprecedented rejection of the two-party system that dominated Greece’s post-dictatorship politics, commonly referred to here as the “metapolitefsi.”

Brutal belt-tightening measures, soaring unemployment and a pervasive sense of precariousness and lost bearings are making Greeks responsive to bunker-ish rhetoric from the edges of the political spectrum.

Despite PASOK’s abysmal ratings in recent polls, ND is struggling to keep its head above 30 percent — not enough to form a government on its own. Meanwhile, combined support for the three leftist parties is at 42.5 percent, according to the most recent poll by Public Issue.

Centrifugal politics

Can people like Voridis and Georgiadis boost ND’s unconvincing ratings? Analysts are not so sure. Georgiadou says the strategy would work if it helped convince voters that ND was not drawn by PASOK or European leaders into backing the memorandum but rather did so out of conviction that doing so was in the national interest.

“But if the recruitment of Voridis and Georgiadis was to mobilize the anti-right reflexes of centrist and center-right voters, then any gains on the right could be offset by defecting centrist voters,” Georgiadou added.

That said, most of the damage to the center has already been inflicted by the very presence of Samaras at the helm of the party.

“Look at ND. It’s not just Voridis or Georgiadis,” Liritsis said, pointing at close Samaras associates such as Failos Kranidiotis and Chrysanthos Lazaridis — both members of the nationalist Diktyo 21 think thank. Kranidiotis, a ND hardliner, this week said that with Samaras in charge of ND, LAOS no longer served any political purpose.

“ND has completely lost the middle ground. It is gradually verging into far-right territory, turning more and more into a party reminiscent of the 1950s populist right,” Liritsis said.

The transformation certainly marks a big change from yesteryear, when Greece’s big parties battled for control of the center. PASOK climbed to power in the mid-1990s after Costas Simitis swayed the center, riding the hype of Third Way politics engineered by fellow social democrats like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. Again, hijacking the middle ground was key to conservative Costas Karamanlis’s success eight years later.

“The voices of people like Kyriakos Mitsotakis or Costis Hatzidakis are no longer heard,” said Liritsis in referrence to ND’s so-called liberal faction while lamenting the country’s drifting from consensual centrism.

“The sad truth is there’s no party left to express the middle ground anymore.”

In Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics

Photo by Chris Bertsos

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s past midnight in Syntagma Square, the epicenter of Greece’s month-long anti-austerity demonstrations, and Stathis Marinos is sitting at a corner cafe overlooking the colorful tent city under the trees. Flipping a string of worry beads while sipping a frappe, the 37-year-old software engineer muses about Greece’s financial crisis.

“The memorandum is unsustainable,” he says of the loan deal signed last year between the socialist government of George Papandreou and Greece’s foreign creditors to avert default. He thinks the debt-choked country is being stifled by a mix of brutally rigid measures — and that they must be resisted. “But you cannot use the system to fight the system. You must not get caught up in this process,” he says, criticizing calls among protesters and pundits to declare the bailout agreement unconstitutional.

A few yards away, in the heart of the white marble square, a loudspeaker crackles with rhetorical din from the ongoing session at the makeshift assembly meeting. Modeled after Spain’s “Indignados” who took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other public squares earlier this year, Athens’s “aganaktismenoi” (Indignants) have camped in the capital’s main square since May 25. A month after the first call on Facebook and other social media, Syntagma, or Constitution square, the starting point to the capital’s main commercial street, is playing host to a postmodern incarnation of the ancient Athenian agora.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather here to discuss anything and everything about the crisis. Speakers, who are chosen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to allow for the greatest possible number of contributions. There is little of the typical booing and hissing, and audiences react mostly with hand gestures: waving their hands in the air for approval or giving a thumbs down when they disagree. Interpretations of what is happening in the square range from the groundbreaking to the delusional or just plain silly.

“This is not a movement — and it will by no means evolve into a political party. It’s more like a trend,” says Marinos, who has joined in every evening after work since day one. He has often taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never belonged to a political party. “It’s great that people familiarize themselves with the political process; they learn how to engage in dialogue with each other; how to participate in civic life,” he says of the meetings.

In the beginning, the Indignants were mostly portrayed as a non-political grouping. It was in the wake of a mass demonstration earlier this month that Greece’s mainstream parties, PASOK and the right-of-center New Democracy, came close to clinching a unity coalition deal. Talks eventually fell through and Papandreou went on to conduct a cabinet reshuffle designed to galvanize his base. He also proposed a referendum in the fall on a proposal to revise the Greek Constitution. The fact that the Indignants have put pressure on the government and the politicians, some argue, means that they have now become political.

Political animals

In fact, some analysts maintain, the movement has been political from the start. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, recently penned one of the most flattering profiles of the Indignants in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, after being invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.

He is not alone. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, has kept a close eye on the demographics of the square. All findings so far, she says, indicate that we are dealing with a “politically active” audience. “These people are deeply disaffected and disillusioned with politicians, with the political parties and with the institutions at large,” she explains. Their reaction was not a bolt out of the historical blue. Most research shows that people’s disaffection with Greece’s social and political institutions dates back to the early 1990s. A public survey published last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dissatisfied with how democracy works.” The local media, which have suffered their own barrage of criticism (some of it fair) as sycophants of the status quo, like to describe the movement in emotional rather than ideological terms. “But frustration is not merely an emotional reaction. Frustration is the preamble of political protest,” says Georgiadou.

“Any kind of politics of resistance starts from a refusal. Refusal is the first step in any process of eventual political confrontation,” Douzinas says. The phenomenon seems to have a dream-come-true quality for some, and Douzinas is certainly happy to connect the dots. “Without people being in a space, taking it over and declaring their refusal of whatever it is that they want to reject, no radical change has ever taken place in history,” he says.

Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the memorandum is not at the root of the problem, but only a symptom. Culminating to the memorandum, they say, the trail has been one of dysfunction, waste and corruption. Writing in The Guardian last week, author Apostolos Doxiadis attacked the “charlatans” who blame the evil foreigners for our own ills and failures. Some soul-searching would instead be more appropriate, he reckons. “I know that the heart of our problem is a huge, parasitic and inefficient public sector, which EU funds, unwisely and often corruptly distributed by our politicians over the past two decades, made even bigger and less productive,” he writes.

When it comes to self-criticism and proposals to overcome the crisis, detractors say, the Syntagma folk are uncomfortably laconic. “Far form being the frontline of any kind of solid movement, the Syntagma camp-in is a confused, depoliticized, borderline-petulant response to the economic crisis,” writes Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked website, in The Australian. He is annoyed at the absence of any serious debate about the hard stuff. Save their vociferous opposition to austerity measures, “absolutely nothing of substance is proposed,” he writes.

What virtually everyone agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bankruptcy, the country received a 110-billion-euro rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014, when it hopes for a return to capital markets for funding. International creditors have set the introduction of a painful raft of belt-tightening measures — including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatizations — as a condition for releasing more aid. A critical vote is to be held in Parliament on June 29 and 30. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 16 percent and crime, in what used to be one of the safest states in Europe, is on the rise. Anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital, is spreading as once-marginal xenophobic groups are establishing a mainstream presence.

Square feat

Nicos Mouzelis, an emeritus sociology professor at the London School of Economics, goes as far as to draw parallels between the Indignants and the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa — and, in a more far-fetched comparison, the events of May 1968. Mouzelis, a former adviser to reformist Prime Minister Costas Simitis, praises the movement’s “great dynamism, spontaneity and the rapid, widespread diffusion across all social strata.” The protests have truly brought together a very diverse crowd — but one that is not always pulling in exactly the same direction.

Browsing through the crowd massed in the square, you encounter a motley crew of leftists railing against global capitalism and neoliberalism. Posters of Che Guevara hang next to used tear gas canisters (with “Made in USA” labels) launched by police during the recent riots. The spicy fumes wafting from the assorted stands of hot-dog vendors occasionally mixes with the pungent odor of marijuana. At the assembly, people discuss the negative effects of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy on Greek farmers before talking through some organizational issues. With time, the discourse at the meetings has become more progressive and assertive. A recent resolution called for activist-style interventions like the occupation of television stations and public buildings. For Marinos, some degree of radicalization is a “natural evolution.” “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.

The Indignants’ decision to cordon off the Parliament building on June 15 to prevent lawmakers from reviewing the controversial midterm fiscal plan was widely regarded as the first break with the movement’s non-violent stance. The rally, which was also attended by thousands of union members, degenerated into violence as riot police battled with self-styled anarchists for hours. Then came the usual finger-pointing squabble over who deserves the blame for the violence. A decision to give the movement a more activist orientation, some analysts say, would most likely alienate the big mass of supporters. “Some people would like to see a fallback to traditional practices. But I am not sure that many people will want to follow,” Georgiadou says.

Interestingly, however, developments in and around Syntagma Square have thrown left-wing parties — like the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) — into disarray. Early skepticism — the more sclerotic KKE went as far as to condemn the movement for not being class-driven — gradually gave way to, some say, cynical attempts to hijack the movement. They are unlikely to succeed, as most protesters view them as part of the problem. “If KKE changes, it will destroy itself,” Marinos says.

Dogs of war

Just up the steps from the assembly, in front of the illuminated Parliament building, a different group is chanting slogans and hurling insults against the “thieving politicians who destroyed Greece,” calling them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the country.” Demonstrators make the disparaging open-palm “moutza” gesture against the House and point green laser beams — sold here by immigrant street vendors — at television crews conveniently positioned on the balconies of the Grande Bretagne luxury hotel. Mock gallows and banners taunting Papandreou as being “Goldman Sachs’s employee of the year” decorate this part of the square. Most of the acid is flung at Theodoros Pangalos, the corpulent deputy prime minister and father of the infamous “we-all-ate-the-money-together” comment. Here, in this more colorful part of the new agora, is where you are most likely to bump into Loukanikos, the famous riot dog, and manic street preacher and cult TV personality Eleni Louka yelling “repent” into a megaphone as bystanders take snapshots with their cell phones.

The rowdy behavior and nationalist overtones of the people stationed in front of the House have caused occasional spats with their left-leaning counterparts down the steps. “I don’t understand what is going on down there,” Giorgos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cigarette. “I don’t have a solution to the crisis. All I know is that I am angry with all this,” he says. The blanket rejectionism and often xenophobic posturing of those upstairs conveys a sense of uncertainty, of lost bearings perhaps, in a world swept up by rapid social change.

Elias Maglinis, a writer and journalist in his early 40s who lives in the nearby Mets area, is put off by some of the crass behavior. “The gallows, the comparisons to the 1967 military coup and the slogans that the dictatorship did not end in 1973 make me angry. These people have no memory or do not know what a dictatorship or firing squad means,” he says.

At 1 a.m., the protest has petered out. About 50 people remain scattered on the sidewalk of Amalias Avenue in front of the House. Some lean over the newly installed railings to taunt the baton-wielding policemen. Two middle-aged men, beer cans in hand, chat with a police chief. A towering figure with a white mustache, the soft-spoken chief expresses his sympathy for the demonstrators. “We also are suffering,” he says pointing at his men. “My salary was slashed; I am the father of three. We are here to protect the House, not them [the deputies],” he says. Police officers, currently paid between 800 and 1,500 euros, are in for wage cuts like all civil servants. As he speaks, fireworks explode overhead as the Panathenaic stadium, the venue that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, prepares to host the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

What next?

Most analysts predict that the Indignant movement will fizzle out. “Because these movements reject any linkages to political parties, trade unions and other well-established organizations, they do not last long,” says Mouzelis. But the long-term impact on Greece’s political culture must not be discounted. “Politicians will not be able to operate ‘as usual’ anymore,” he says. And even if the hype about direct democracy in action is exaggerated, recent developments have made people realize that they can be active citizens without belonging to any particular party or trade union. “A democracy should welcome the existence of active citizens; it’s not something to be afraid of. After all, it’s better if people get together in public squares than becoming numbed couch potatoes,” Georgiadou says.

Back in the square, the assembly is voting on the resolutions proposed over the course of the day. Attendants vote in favor of organizing concerts on a daily basis, but reject a proposal to invite the country’s premier for talks. Decisions will soon be posted on the real-democracy website. Most of them dictate actions to be taken during the two-day general strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ambling over to the crowd, Marinos says that what happens during the strike may well determine the future of the movement. He ponders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three employees died when the premises were firebombed during an anti-austerity rally. “Should there be human losses like then, the whole thing will die.”

Spoiled by the gods

Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

What does not kill you can make you stronger, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Or, at least, a little bit richer.

Last week, Ukraine announced that the area around the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be officially opened to tourists. The former Soviet republic’s emergency situations ministry, the Guardian reported, is planning to offer visitor tours inside the 30-mile no-go zone set up after reactor number four of the powerhouse exploded on April 26 , 1986, sending a radiation cloud over much of Europe – and swarms of panicked consumers here in Greece to the local supermarkets as tons of Dutch-made tinned milk flew off the shelves in just a few hours.

Perhaps Ukraine’s toxic theme park might have a lesson or two to offer us about how to turn disaster into opportunity. Sure, Greece is not some deserted wasteland quite just yet, but it has long been in the “accident-waiting-to-happen category.” A mammoth 110-billion-euro bailout package signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year was generally seen as a last gasp effort to prevent this once-proud eurozone member from defaulting – a lot like patching up a nuclear plant’s cracked sarcophagus. Will the patches hold? No one knows for sure.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the nation has all but hit rock bottom. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that so many of us still refuse to change the way we do things. The crisis, the biggest since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to break with the rigidities, habits and babble of the past. But very few people have seen the crisis as an opportunity, or better, the opportunity behind the crisis.

Our gods are dead, as Nietzsche would have it. But, as the late German philosopher would also say, zero-hour moments like this are not necessarily a cause for despair, but, instead the first step for a reevaluation of our old values. Sadly, no inner readjustment appears to be in the cards here as we still look to the same old gods for succor: populism, nepotism and self-interest.

Take the education sector, traditionally a test site for political experimentation by socialist and conservative governments alike, which is once again being shoved into surreal territory. Only this time it’s the fingers of the academics that hover over the self-destruct button. A government campaign to overhaul the administration of the country’s higher education system is going nowhere as university rectors have rejected every single proposal put forward by the Education Ministry. Rectors said they will not accept any new measures unless these also guarantee a free flow of funds and full independence for the recipients of the cash, i.e. themselves. Rectors, in other words, demand that the state has no say over where its own money goes. The rectors – yes, the nation’s intellectual elite, not some bunch of heavily indoctrinated Communist Party activists – went even further by warning that if the state decides to put its proposals into law, they will refuse to implement them. Adhering to the law, we are told, is a matter of personal preference.

So, before signing a financial memorandum, the Greek government should perhaps have first signed an educational memorandum obliging us to modify the anachronisms that have reduced state schools and universities to a pathetic mess. That does not mean to say that the measures requested by Greece’s lenders – a daunting mix of tax hikes and wage cuts – are not painful, and even brutal at times. In fact, the innocent are the first to suffer as too many babies are being thrown out with the bath water. Like modern-day Stakhanovites, we are told to work harder, for less. But even so, it’s hard to see how we can trim spending and raise enough money to fix the situation, when we have failed to pocket the money that was offered to us in the first place. Last month Greece received a final written warning from the European Commission – the last step before legal action – over hundreds of illegal landfills that are still in operation across the country. Despite the looming fines and an offer by the European Union to fund the construction of new sanitary landfills, Greece has so far failed to deliver. Last week, the dump saga took an ugly turn as angry residents of Keratea, southeast of the capital, clashed with riot police in a bid to halt plans for a landfill. Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, were designated some 10 years ago as the sites where Attica’s new landfills would be built, but the projects have been stalled by legal wrangles and local protests. As a result, Greece is in serious risk of losing the European funds. One would hope that our ostrich-like bureaucrats would, at least, be able to dig a hole in the ground.

The list is endless. This deleterious mix of incompetence, corruption and malgovernance has left nothing unaffected: the judiciary, military, police, church, media, soccer and this miserable excuse for a city – everything is bankrupt. Nietzsche liked to describe truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” This is something our homegrown bureaucrats know all too well. For years, they have used myth to sustain their mojo, cynically clawing their way up the greasy pole of politics. They were not alone in this. It took a huge army of cheerleaders that eagerly blocked streets, waved cheap plastic flags and packed public squares and smoke-filled conference halls, basking in the glow of the like-minded. Now the party is over. But some are still dancing to the tune of yesteryear.

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